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Making History

September 5, 2005

Artists have been commissioned for centuries to commemorate famous battles. What if some artists got together and, without any commission, decided to portray their own views of war? That’s what happened in Philadelphia, Pa., resulting in an exhibition of startling antiwar images.

The 63 artists who donated work in the Operation Rapid American Withdrawal 1970-2005 Exhibition on display this month were inspired by a Labor Day weekend peace march by Vietnam Veterans Against the War 35 years ago. “But the exhibit must also be read in light of the war in Iraq--as a group statement of resistance,” a review in Philadelphia Weekly noted.

Visitors to the show in a former factory called the Ice Box Project Space, Crane Arts Building, 1400 N. American Street, can judge for themselves. What is clearly on display is a decidedly different slice of American history. I was struck by the intent interaction of artists, aging veterans of the march, and a largely young, military-age crowd at the opening reception.

Jane Irish, the show’s organizer, set the exhibition’s tone with a 45-foot-long banner she painted depicting combat-clad vets breaking toy M-16 rifles at the culmination of the 1970 event at Valley Forge. She also mounted a double-sided row of her oil sketches of peaceful scenes along the route in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, where nearly 100 veterans trudged through small towns and farm country, reenacting a search-and-destroy mission using volunteers as hapless “suspected Viet Cong.” On the reverse side of each sketch, she attached a scene of violence in Vietnam painted from war photos.

Her work was inspired by photos by Tony Velez of the march and of war zones in Vietnam. The show includes an arresting selection of his war and peace photos. Velez, an ex-GI who became an arts professor at Kean University in New Jersey, attended the show with his brother, Henry, a medical doctor, who also joined the peace march after returning from combat in Vietnam. The Velez brothers told a rapt audience for an oral history panel discussion how the march helped to channel their bitterness over their war experiences into working to help end the war and network with others to develop more productive lives.

As a fellow participant in the march, and in the years-long process vets and supporters created for defusing explosive anger and turning that energy into nonviolent conflict resolution actions, I enjoyed the creative ferment that bubbled up in the art show. This is history, and art, that was happily created by people who disagreed with official views. It would be nice if the artists could now get paid commissions to commemorate Americans’ long legacy of peaceful creative actions to forge a better way of life.

For further information: www.operationraw.com (click on individual artists’ names to see some of the work in the show), www.inliquid.com/features/oraw/ and www.tonyvelez.com.

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